Describe the role of Situational and Dispositional factors in explaining behaviour


Learning Objectives Powerpoint: learning-obs-for-sit-and-dip-factors

We will be watching the following documentary =which introduces many interesting psychological concepts from the socio-cultural level of analysis and sets the stage for our first learning objective: 

The documentary introduced the idea that the social situation can be a powerful force in determining behaviour, eliciting actions, which we might never have predicted based on the individual’s personality.

The following clip reminds us of the horrors of the Holocaust and the TED talk reveals the some of the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad by American soldiers against the Iraqi prisoners. We discuss what sort of people engage in such horrific brutality and harm against others and whether we have a tendency to make dispositional or situational judgements and why.

By now you will have created posters about the studies of Milgram (1963) and Zimbardo (1973) and shared your findings in lesson. In both these studies it seems that the social situation over-rode people’s personalities leading them to commit brutal acts is against others. Milgram, a Jewish psychologists whose family had fled Nazi Europe, was inspired to explain the events of the Holocaust. Many before him had advocated the “Germans as different” hypothesis implying there was a flaw in their personalities, an ego weakness whereas the findings of Milgram’s study with American male Pps indicates that, in fact,he social situation may have been caused these acts of destructive obedience.

Situational factors that shaped this behaviour included…

  • the presence of a perceived authority figure, a scientist in a lab coat
  • the immediacy/proximity of the authority figure
  • the prestigious nature of Yale university
  • the graduated commitment, moving up the voltmeter in 15 v increments
  • the “buffer” of the learner being in a separate room but the experimenter being in the same room


The booklet for this topic can be found here: sociocult-cognition-workbook-1

In lessons we will also be considering a famous modern replication of Milgram’s study conducted by Burger (2009) which looks at the role of two personality factors to see whether they have any impact on obedience to authority. This material could be very useful in your final answer. The following PowerPoint provides details of the study: 

Powerpoint: one-contemporary-study-from-social-psychology

Handout: burger-revision-notes

Original paper: burger-original

Milgram’s original research assistant gives his thoughts on the Burger study: elms-comment-on-burger

Dispositional factors which may influence action


It should be noted that not everyone administered the full 450V in Milgram’s study, in fact 35% of Pps were defiant, (although amazingly 100% went to 300 V). Similarly, there are real life examples of people finding ways to defy orders. For examplemOscar Schindler, was a Nazi officer who saved over a 1000 Jewish workers in his factory, his story is told in the famous film “Schindler’s List”. Likewise, the film Hotel Rwanda tells the story of Paul Rusebagina who saved a similar number of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the hotel where he worked during the Rwandan genocide. This demonstrates that dispostional factors may explain some behaviour better than situational factors and the work booklet prompts you to think about which personality traits might be associated with this sort of behaviour.

Bystander Behaviour

Social psychologists have researched a wide range of areas where the power of the social situation appears to over ride individual differences leading to many people behaving in very similar ways. A further example which we discussed whilst watching 4 steps to tyranny was that of Bystander Intervention. For homework you will be researching:
  • The Case of Kitty Genovese
  • Piliavin et al (1969)
  • Latane and Darley

Bystander Apathy in a New York Hospital real life example:

Individual differences in Bystander Behaviour: “The Everyday Hero” Everyday heroes; Wesley Autry jumped in front of oncoming train to protect a man who had fallen onto the tracks.

Zimbardo’s book “The Lucifer Effect” explores whether situational factors could potentially elicit heroic behaviour from all of us. This article examines why some people become heroes in certain situations and whether it is possible to increase the likelihood that individuals will become heroes in the future.

Attribution theory

When we reason about why people have behaved as they do, we are making an “attribution”, we are attributing their behaviour to situational or dispositional factors.

This handout introduces attribution theory including the role of situational and dispositional factors in explaining behaviour:  What is attribution theory.doc

Here is the PowerPoint on this topic: attribution-theory-1
This smart contains a quiz and the the answers (situational and dispositional) are hidden on each screen – I will reveal them in due course!) sit and dip attributions quiz.notebook (please see google drive if this won’t open)
Here are the sheets which accompany the two demonstrations that we will do in class on Jones et al (1961) and McArthur (1972).
An Assessment Activity :
Here are some MCQs to test you one what you have covered so far: social-cognition-mcqs

Some revision help

This final document contains an answer to the short answer question, but it is a very long answer! Write key words and thoughts in the textboxes as you read through; then create your own revision notes. Notice how the phrase from the question keeps surfacing in the answer and also how there is a focus on ‘the role of’ i.e. are dispositional and situational factors used equally or does one have a bigger part to play than the other?
I will write another model answer for this question when I get time.

Interesting links

Assessment task

Outline the role of situational and dispositional factors in explaining one behaviour